All U.S. citizens have various privacy rights. These rights include the right not to have their homes or belongings searched by the police unless proper procedures are followed. Part of these procedures include the police obtaining a “search warrant” before entering a person’s home to search it in connection with a criminal investigation.

A search warrant is an order signed by a judge that gives police officers the right to search a specific place for specific objects or materials for a criminal investigation. Search warrants often include areas like a person’s home or apartment.

To have a search warrant issued, the officer requesting it must show that “probable cause” exists. There must be some basis of the belief that evidence is connected with a crime on the property or premises.

What is the Fourth Amendment?

As mentioned, U.S. citizens have various protections and legal rights. Many of these rights are provided through the U.S. Constitution. For instance, the 4th Amendment to the U.S.Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of a person or property.

While exceptions to the general rule exist, the 4th Amendment requires that police first obtain a valid search warrant to conduct a search or seizure of your person and property. Without such a warrant, the police may be violating the person’s rights. Another common form of warrant is an arrest warrant, which gives the police the authority to enter a person’s home to arrest a person listed specifically in the warrant.

What Does “Probable Cause” Mean?

Probable cause is a legal standard used in criminal investigations. It refers to situations where the officer has possession of facts within their knowledge that provide a reasonable belief that a criminal offense has been committed or is about to occur.

For instance, if the police receive a tip from several informants that illegal drugs are stored in a house, it may be considered probable cause to believe that drug trafficking or drug use is occurring at that place.

Does an Officer Need a Search Warrant to Search Me?

There are specific instances where a police officer can legally search you or your property without first securing a warrant. These are known as “searches made without a warrant” or “warrantless searches.” Some situations where warrantless searches are allowed may include:

  • Consent Search: If a person voluntarily agrees to let a police officer search, the officer generally does not need a warrant. However, a person has the right to refuse to give consent and may also revoke consent at any point during the search. Consent for a search must be given voluntarily and not the result of police coercion;
  • Search Made in Connection with Arrest: If you are arrested, a police officer can search you and the area in your immediate control without a search warrant. “Immediate control” typically means within the area marked out by your wingspan (the area marked off by your outstretched arms;
  • Automobile Search: If a police officer has a valid reason to pull you over while you are driving, the officer has the right to search your car without a search warrant. However, the officer must also have probable cause to believe the car has illegal contraband or evidence of a crime;
  • Plain View Doctrine: Police officers do not need a search warrant to seize illegal items or evidence in plain view. Three requirements must be satisfied:
    • The officer must lawfully be present at the place where the evidence can be viewed in plain sight;
    • The officer has a lawful right of access to the object or item; and
    • It is immediately apparent that the object is the fruit of a crime or involved in a crime.

When are Search Warrants Illegal?

There are circumstances where a search warrant is invalid or illegal. If a search occurs based on the use of the illegal warrant, the search will typically be unconstitutional. A search warrant may be considered illegal for the following reasons:

  • The search warrant was obtained without the proper probable cause; and
  • The search warrant does not state or list the time, place, and items to be searched with specificity.

If the search warrant is considered illegal, then the evidence gathered from the search warrant is often thrown out and would not be used against the defendant during a trial or be used to charge him with a crime.

What If I Believe My Rights Were Violated in Connection with a Police Search?

If you believe that your rights were violated in connection with a police search, there may be several impacts on any criminal proceedings that follow. First, if the police obtained evidence without a warrant or were illegal, the evidence will likely be “excluded” from the court. The items seized cannot be used as evidence in a criminal court of law against you.

Second, suppose you believe that your privacy rights were violated, and you suffered losses or harm due to the violation. In that case, it is possible to sue the police for the violation. This, however, is a complex legal situation and generally requires the assistance of a lawyer. Your rights are important. An attorney could help ensure you receive justice if your constitutional rights were violated.

Are There Any Exceptions?

Certain searches do not require a search warrant. For example:

  • Consent: a warrant is not required when a person in control of the property gives consent for the search
  • Hot pursuit of a felon: to prevent a felon’s escape or ability to harm others
  • Imminent destruction of evidence: when evidence might be destroyed before a warrant can be obtained
  • Emergency searches: if someone is heard screaming, yelling, or calling for help
  • Search incident to arrest: to mitigate the harm to the arresting officers
  • Public safety: a warrantless search may be permissible in emergency situations where the public is in danger
  • Plain view: evidence in plain view from a lawful vantage point

In plain view cases, the officer is legally on the premises with a legitimate vantage point, and it is immediately obvious that the evidence is contraband. The plain view rule would apply, for instance, when an officer pulls a suspect over for a seat belt violation and sees a syringe on the passenger seat.

What is a Protective Sweep?

If a person is arrested in a home or vehicle, police may perform a protective sweep to make sure no weapons are in the vicinity. Police may search for weapons in the room where they arrested the subject of a warrant and conduct a protective sweep of the premises if they reasonably believe that other suspects may be hiding.

Do I Need a Lawyer if I Have Any Issues Regarding Search Warrants?

Illegal searches can affect a criminal case significantly. If you’re facing any such issues, a qualified criminal defense attorney will be able to determine whether the police followed the proper procedure in searching.

The attorney will also determine whether any of your constitutional rights were violated. If your attorney successfully argues that your 4th Amendment rights were violated, evidence uncovered during the unlawful search will be deemed inadmissible in court.

Use LegalMatch’s services today to find a criminal defense attorney in your area. There is no fee to schedule a consultation.